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Judaism By The Numbers

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

Talk delivered at Community Church of the Verdes, 27 January, 2020, Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

Well, it is a daunting task that you have set for me. “Judaism.” Not- Jewish Ethics, the Jewish Lifecycle, Jewish Holidays, Jewish Texts, Jewish History- all of it! Five thousand years in 45 minutes. The story is told that Rabbi Hillel was approached by a person who wanted to know everything there is to know abou Judaism while he stood on one foot. Anyone out there want to stand on one foot while I speak? Anyway, Hillel’s classic response was, “That which is harmful to you, do not do to another. The rest is commentary- now, go and study.” (Shabbat 31b)

Thank you very much- are there any questions?

Seriously, I was not sure how to approach such an overwhelming request, so I am framing my comments as, “Judaism By The Numbers.” We’ll look at 10 basic concepts and then, of course, I would love to respond to any questions that you may have. One of the important things to know about Judaism is the high value we place on asking questions. The classic joke is, “Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question?” “Why not?”

When Isidor Rabi won the Nobel prize in Physics, he was asked, “Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?”

He replied, “My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: ‘Nu? Did you learn anything today?” But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. “Izzy,” she would say, “Did you ask a good question today?” That difference- asking good questions- made me become a scientist.” So please ask lots of questions!

  1. GOD- Number One is for One God

Judaism is founded on the principle of ethical monotheism, that is, the idea that there is one and only one God, and that that God demands ethical behavior from humanity. We imagine God as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. That said, there is a saying in the Jewish world, “Two Jews, three opinions,” and nowhere is this more evident than in how we understand God. In our prayers we say, “God of Abraham, God of Sarah, God of Isaac, God of Rebecca, God of Jacob, God of Leah, God of Rachel.” Why the redundancy? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just say, “God of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, etc?”

The traditional response to this conundrum is a recognition that each person has their own concept of God, and that, in fact, our concept of God can and will likely change throughout life’s journey. Classically, we have 70 names of God, and we may connect with a different name, a different aspect or understanding of God, at different moments.

Questioning God, challenging God, these are hallmarks of the Jewish faith, going back to Abraham’s argument with God on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. The first thing Abraham does after entering into a relationship with God is to challenge God with the words, “Should not the judge of all the earth do justly?” We call ourselves “the people of Israel.” The word “Israel” is translated as “one who wrestles with God,” based on the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel when his name is changed to Yisrael/Israel.

“A Jew,” writes Elie Wiesel, “can love God, a Jew can fight God, but a Jew may not ignore God.” Rabbi Aaron Zeitlin expresses this reality powerfully in his classic reflection: Praise Me, says God, and I will know that you love me. Curse Me, says God, and I will know that you love me.

Praise me or curse Me. And I will know that you love Me.

Sing out My graces, says God.

Raise your fist against Me and revile, says God,

Sing out graces or revile,

Revile is also a kind of praise, says God.

But if you sit fenced off in your apathy, says God,

If you look at the stars and yawn,

If you see suffering and don’t cry out,

If you don’t praise and you don’t revile,

Then I created you in vain, says God.

  1. Jewish Values- Number Two is Dedicated to Jewish Values and the Balance Between Humility and Arrogance

There is a teaching variously attributed to at least two different rabbis that goes like this- Each of us should have in our pocket 2 slips of paper. On one should be written, “The world was created for my sake.” On the other, “I am but dust and ashes.” The secret of wisdom is knowing when to read each message. Humility is a priority Jewish value. Humility is defined as occupying, “No more than my place, no less than my space.” While it is important to understand our own worth, it is more important that we constantly remind ourselves that every human being is made in the image of God. Thus, we are to honor every person and care for their needs. In fact, Rabbi Israel Salanter suggested that, “Another person’s physical needs are our spiritual needs.” Ritual observance is a foundation of Jewish life, yet it is meaningless unless it is accompanied by righteous behavior. We read in Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy, as I, God, am holy.” Holiness in action is the Jewish way. When we do good in the world, we bring holiness to God’s name. When we do wrong, we bring discredit not only on ourselves but on the Jewish people as an entity.

Among many, many, other values we emphasize kindness, generosity, compassion, responsibility, equanimity, faith, and, fundamentally, gratitude. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes that, “Living with gratitude elevates your entire life. You become a more spiritual person. You become a more joyful person. You become a kinder and more compassionate person. You become a calmer and more peaceful person. You become a person who lives in greater harmony with others.”

The Hebrew word for a Jew is “Yehudi,” which comes from the same root as the word, “thank you.” To be a Jew is to live your life focused on cultivating gratitude for all of our blessings and for the very gift of life itself. Gratitude is the foundation of Jewish spirituality.

  1. The Three Festivals- Three is for the Three Festivals

The Jewish year begins in the fall with the High Holidays, the Days of Awe- Rosh HaShanah, the new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Jewish people observe the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals- Passover, Sukkot/the Feast of Booths, and Shavuot/the Feast of Weeks. Each of these three festivals has both an agricultural and a historical significance. In between, there are Purim and Chanukkah and a whole host of other celebrations and fast days that you may not have even heard of. We have a full schedule of holidays. It wasn’t until I was in an Army Reserve unit and found myself telling my Group Commander that I couldn’t make it to our weekend drill- yet again!- because it was yet another Jewish holiday, that I realized exactly how rich and full is our calendar. The cycle of the holidays brings structure and meaning to our days, and as the year flows, we experience every human emotion and connection to our history and to the rhythm of nature. The Jewish calendar is based on the cycles of the moon, with a correction added for the 11 day difference between the solar and the lunar years. That is why Chanukkah might be around the same time as Thanksgiving one year, and it might be around the same time as Christmas the next year, but it will never be in August!

There are times of meditation and introspection and times of raucous celebration. The Passover seder meal is one of the most widely observed of our festivals. Families gather to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt through the use of ritual foods and a text called the Haggadah. More than any other mitzvah, any other commandment, in the Torah, we read 36 times that we should have one law for the native and the stranger. Passover is an annual reminder that we know what it is like to be the outsider, we were slaves and we must be sensitive to potential abuses of power.

Through the ritual of the Passover seder, we teach that value to the next generation, emphasizing our responsibility to care of the disenfranchised. It is no wonder that Jews have always been disproportionately represented in movements for social justice.

  1. Matriarchs- Four Represents the Four Matriarchs

The Jewish story is the story of a family, Avram and Sarai, who come to believe in one God and become God’s emissaries to the world. Number 4 is for the 4 matriarchs- Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac marries Rebecca. Their son Jacob marries Leah and Rachel. Jewish women have played a vital role in the development of the Jewish tradition, often behind the scenes. Four matriarchs- Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel.

In the Biblical text, women often resort to subterfuge in order to accomplish their goals. As Judaism evolves, women are placed on a pedestal, albeit in the context of defined social roles. The rabbis of 2,000 years ago enacted protections for women in the case of divorce, and there are a small number of women quoted in the Talmud in their own names.

Throughout the Middle Ages, it was often the women who knew the language of the land, and women who engaged in commerce to support their husbands, while the men were devoted to prayer and learning. However, the synagogue was clearly the realm of men. Women were permitted to participate in prayer, but were not required to do so. Thus, women were excluded from leadership roles until the 20th century, when the first women were ordained as rabbis.

In 1972, Sally Preisand became the first female Reform rabbi. Reform Judaism is the most liberal of what you might think of as Jewish “denominations.” It is important to note the spectrum of observance among these various denominations within the Jewish community. Within Conservative Judaism, which is more traditional, women did not graduate rabbinical school until 1985. While women in Orthodox circles are emerging as community leaders, they have yet to achieve the same status and titles as men. In 1981, I had the honor to become the first female rabbi to serve in the United States military.

  1. Torah- Five is the Five Books of the Torah

The Hebrew Bible consists of 3 parts- The Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, is read and studied every year throughout the Jewish world. We begin in the fall with these 5 books- the book of Genesis, proceeding through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Jews are rightly known as “The People of the Book,” for our devotion to learning and the priority value placed on study. It is considered to be a religious obligation to study on a daily basis.

The Torah begins with the story of creation. The history of the Jewish people begins with Abraham and Sarah, and the Torah contains the story of the relationship between God and the Jewish people, the enslavement in Egypt and Moses as the vehicle for liberation, the wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, and the foundation of the Jewish way of life.

The 5 scrolls- Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Lamentations are read on various holidays throughout the year. Selections from the prophets are part of each week’s focus, and selections from the Psalms are included in the liturgy.

Study, in Jewish tradition, is a vehicle of spiritual expression. It has been suggested that, “When I pray I talk to God, when I study, God talks to me.” Reverence for learning and esteem for teachers is reflected in the fact that the word rabbi translates to “my teacher.” It should be noted that Jews tend to avoid the term, “Old Testament,” in favor of The Hebrew Bible.

  1. Books of the Mishna- Six is the Six Books of the Mishna

Besides, the Bible, the most significant source of Jewish wisdom is the Talmud. After the completion of the Bible, rabbis continued to debate and discuss how to apply the Biblical text in our lives. In the year 200 CE, these teachings were collected and published as the 6 books of the Mishna. Another 400 years of conversation ensued, resulting in the Talmud. The Jewish people read the text like it was a love letter- Why did he use this word not that word? What did he mean by that phrase? No single word, no single letter, is insignificant; all is open to interpretation. It would be rare for Jews to study Bible without including a broad variety of commentaries from every era- ancient to contemporary.

It’s fascinating that the rabbis assume their right to interpret the text, even to override God’s specific intervention in the discussion, as evidenced by this classic Talmudic story. (Baba Metzia 59a/b) There is an argument about a relatively obscure legal point, and there is unanimity on the correct response, with the exception of one person- Rabbi Eliezer.

On that day, we read, Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but they were rejected. He said: "If the law is as I say, may the carob tree prove it." The carob tree was uprooted from its place a distance of 100 cubits. Others say, 400 cubits. His colleagues said to him: "One cannot prove anything from a carob tree." Rabbi Eliezer said to them: "If the law is as I say, may the aqueduct prove it." The water in the aqueduct began to flow backwards. The sages replied: "One cannot prove anything from an aqueduct."

Eliezer continued: "If the law is as I say, then may the walls of the house of study prove it." The walls of the house of study began to cave in. Rabbi Joshua rebuked the walls, "If Torah scholars are debating a point of Jewish law, what are your qualifications to intervene?" The walls did not fall, in deference to Rabbi Joshua, nor did they straighten up, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. They still stand there at a slant.

Finally Eliezer said: "If the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!" There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: "What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer — the law is as he says..."

Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: "'The Torah is not in heaven!. We take no notice of heavenly voices, since You, God, have already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to 'follow the majority.'"

Later on, a prophet was asked, “What was God’s response to all of this?” The reply- God is depicted as laughing and saying, “My children have defeated me.”

  1. Shabbat- Seven is for Shabbat, The Sabbath Daay

The Sabbath is the foundation of Jewish family and communal life. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy,” is the only ritual law in the 10 commandments. The Sabbath is built right into the foundation of the creation story. On the 7th day, the creation is not complete until NOT creating has been created.

Ahad Ha-Am observed that, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” Beginning on Friday night and until 3 stars are visible in the sky on Saturday night, the Jewish focus is on family and community, on disconnecting from the commercial and renewing our commitment to the spiritual. We light candles in our homes, enjoy a festive meal, come together for worship, and remind ourselves of the need to nurture our souls.

In a traditional home, no electricity is used, no cars are driven, devices are turned off. In the non-Orthodox world, the day is devoted to family and friends. In my own practice, we don’t, for example, watch television of Shabbat, yet we might drive to the park to play with the grandkids. In our incredibly over-programmed lives, Shabbat has never been more important. Listen to how the great 20th century philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel described it-“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation, from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”

We hold services in the synagogue on Friday night and Saturday, Shabbat morning, coming together as a community to provide support through all the vicissitudes of life, to study and to pray together. Jewish services are always open to anyone who chooses to join us.

  1. Chanukkah- Eight is for Eight Days of Chanukkah

The 8-day holiday of Chanukkah, while well known in contemporary America, is among the most minor of holidays on the calendar. Chanukkah commemorates the successful revolt of the Jewish people against the oppressive forces of the Syrian-Greeks in the year 165 BCE. Legend has it that, following a 3 year battle, the temple was rededicated- the word “Chanukkah” means “dedication.” There was only enough oil to light the menorah, the candelabrum which illuminated the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, for 1 day, and yet, miraculously, the oil lasted for 8 days. Thus, 8 days of Chanukkah.

Chanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that celebrates a military victory. As a retired US Army chaplain, following 38 years of service, the holiday is especially meaningful as a celebration of the right to freedom of religious expression. Judaism is not a pacifist tradition; we DO recognize a right, and some would say, an obligation, to self-defense. The Psalmist (34:18) tells us to, “Seek peace and pursue it.” Prayers for peace are part of every worship service. And yet, we acknowledge the reality of evil and our role in fighting it.

Part of the genius of Jewish tradition is how it can be re-interpreted and renewed in every generation. In the Middle Ages, during times of intense persecution, the stories of martyrdom associated with Chanukkah brought solace to an oppressed people. In our own culture, Chanukkah is a necessary counterpoint to the overwhelm of Christmas, and a reminder to treasure our freedom of religion, a gift that Jews never take for granted. In the State of Israel, the spirit of the Maccabees is a time to celebrate the strength and courage needed for the tiny Jewish state to survive in a sea of adversaries, to celebrate the victory of the few against the many. Israel was born out of the devastation of the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews, including 1 ½ million children, were murdered by the Nazi machine. The contemporary State of Israel provides refuge for Jews fleeing persecution around the world, and stands as a steadfast reminder that “never again” will the Jewish people be defenseless or homeless. Chanukkah is a small holiday with a big message.

  1. Months of Childbirth- Nine is for Nine Months of Childbirth and the Jewish Life-Cycle

From birth to death and everywhere in between, the Jewish people have rich and full opportunities to commemorate every aspect of our lifecycle experiences. Following the 9 months of pregnancy, the birth of a boy is celebrated with a ritual circumcision on his 8th day of life, while a girl will be welcomed with a naming ceremony held either in the synagogue or at home. The childrens’ Hebrew names are announced at this time- it is customary that Jewish children have both an English name and also a Hebrew name that will be used in synagogue ceremonies. Eastern European Jews typically name their children after deceased loved ones, while those of Spanish origin honor the names of living relatives.

Bar or Bat Mitzvah takes place, traditionally, when a girl turns 12 or a boy turns 13, though it is the Reform custom to hold both ceremonies at age 13. Bar/Bat Mitzvah means “son or daughter of the commandments,” and it symbolizes the child’s acceptance of responsibility for their own religious life. By the age of 13, children are expected to know the difference between right and wrong and to have the self-discipline to choose to do what is right.

We imagine that each individual has a good inclination and an evil inclination. Our character is formed by the repeated choices we make of right or wrong. Until the age of 13, it is the parents’ responsibility to guide their children. Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the time when the child is considered to be an adult in the eyes of Jewish law, responsible for their own religious life and their own choices.

You are probably familiar with much of the rich symbolism of the Jewish wedding from depictions in various media. The wedding canopy, the exchange of rings, a written marriage contract expressing the commitment the couple are making to each other, and the breaking of a glass, all make Jewish weddings deeply meaningful celebrations. And, sadly, when marriages end, there is a specific Jewish ceremony of divorce as well.

Nowhere is the genius of Jewish tradition more evident than in matters surrounding death and dying. Although it is not well-known, there IS a Jewish “death bed confession” which I have always found to be a profound opportunity to help both the person who is dying as well as the family, find peace at that difficult moment. In ground burial is preferred, though more and more Jews ARE choosing to be cremated.

In general, the burial takes place as soon as possible, followed by 7 intense days of mourning, during which friends are charged to visit with the family in their home and provide meals, prayer, and emotional support. Graduated stages of 30 days, then 11 months, then an annual remembrance of the day of the death, help the mourner honor the memory of their loved one while re-integrating into the community. Services are held in the synagogue 4 times a year during which we remember all who have passed away.

  1. Community- Ten is for the Minyan and Jewish Community

Judaism is a faith tradition rooted in community. The synagogue is known by 3 names- it is the house of prayer, it is the house of study, and it is the house of assembly. It’s the place we get together to remind ourselves of our history and values, to educate ourselves and our children, to pray and to support each other in good times and bad, and to join together in our efforts to make the world a better place. It is for this reason that our ancient teachers told us: Do not separate yourself from the community. It is for this reason that our tradition establishes a minyan, a gathering of ten Jews, to symbolize communal support. We need a minimum of 10 Jewish adults in order to hold a complete prayer service. We may make each other crazy, yet, Jews understand the need to be responsible for each other wherever we may find ourselves. The story is told of a young Hassid who complained to his rebbe that he was depressed. He feels alone, there is illness and a business setback in his family, and he is afraid that God doesn't care about him. The man is sitting with the rebbe, his rabbi and teacher, in front of the fireplace, and the fire is just about to go out. There are only scattered embers in the fireplace. The rebbe takes the poker and stokes the embers into a heap. There is a burst of flame and new warmth emerges from the fire. "You see?" the rebbe asks as he gently stokes the fire. "Do you see what happened when I gathered the embers closer together? The fire came back to life. But when the embers were scattered and separated from each other, they weakened and almost died out. It's the same with people, you know, the rebbe continued. When we are alone and separated or disconnected from each other, our spirits are in danger of dying out. But when we huddle together, we receive warmth and comfort from one another, and our hope is renewed. "

I pray for all of you that you experience warmth and comfort from your beautiful community, and the restoration of hope in the year ahead. Thank you so much for this blessed opportunity to be with you, and I am delighted to try to answer any questions that you may have.

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